Staffers Get Rare Opportunity to Observe Election Day in Guatemala

Two members of Ball State’s Voter System Technical Oversight Program (VSTOP) embarked on a trip of a lifetime in June 2023 when a crew of 10—including Indiana Secretary of State Diego Morales and several Indiana county clerks—served as in-person International Observers of the recent general election in Guatemala.

The primary mission of VSTOP, a center within the Bowen Center for Public Affairs, is to ensure election integrity and improve voter confidence locally and regionally in Indiana. Most think Election Day is a one-day event, but members of VSTOP work all year on the certification of voting machines and their functionality, maintaining electronic poll books, and testing before election days. VSTOP is directed by Dr. Jay Bagga, professor of computer science, and Dr. Chad Kinsella, associate professor of Political Science. Multiple experts assist them in election administration, graduate assistants, and student workers to continue advocating for elections’ safety and security.

VSTOP’s staff works closely with the Indiana Secretary of State and the Indiana Election Commission to ensure best practices are followed to increase voter confidence. The VSTOP team also developed and continues to maintain a database containing all election equipment used in Indiana and prepares reports for the Indiana Election Administration.

Dr. Chad Kinsella and Alisa Gray, graduate assistant and interim training and assessment specialist with the VSTOP program, were among those invited to be election observers in Guatemala.

Secretary Morales, born in Guatemala, felt it would be an excellent opportunity for VSTOP and the rest of the Indiana team to observe an election different from the United States. The opportunity of being an International Election Observer would assist in playing a role in adding legitimacy to the Guatemalan Elections and provide support to their democracy.

While in Guatemala as International Election Observers, the Indiana Team met with election officials, elected leaders, poll workers, voters, the Guatemalan Deputy Secretary of State, the U.S. Ambassador, and other election organizations. The Indiana Team visited ten polling locations where they could observe and learn more about the Guatemalan Election process.Lady holding up index finger

“It really was an experience of a lifetime,” said Ms. Gray. “It provided us with a very different perspective. One of our favorite things we experienced on election day was the atmosphere. Everyone was so happy to be there. Most polling locations were playing music—one even had a live band. They served coffee and cookies. It differed from Indiana, where people go, do their business, and walk out. Instead, it’s a fun social gathering.”

Guatemala’s first election was held in 1999 after the signing of the Peace Accords. This is one of the differences between American and Guatemalan elections, as Americans began voting in 1789. Additionally, Guatemalan elections are held every four years, where Guatemalan citizens may see nearly 30 different political parties on the ballot with candidates in each. Another difference between Guatemalan and American elections is that they vote via paper. Guatemalan citizens fill out five separate sheets voting for local, state, and federal positions.

Additionally, because of the low literacy rate, Guatemala has pictures of the candidates on the ballots to assist residents in selecting their preferred candidates. They also use a color-coding system that assists voters in casting their ballots. But even with all the assistance provided, voter turnout for the 2023 general election was around 60 percent—low compared to turnouts for previous Guatemalan elections.

“The demographics of those working the polls were much different than in Indiana,” said Dr. Kinsella. “Here, you mostly have senior citizens working the polls, and you don’t see many younger people.”

In Indiana, voters are often offered a small sticker indicating they’ve voted. Indiana also has a Statewide Voter Registration system that can track who has voted through the check-in process on the electronic poll books. In Guatemala, however, voters get one of their fingers coated with an ink that can last several days. By inking the fingers, it is hoped that voters are deterred from trying to vote again.

Guatemala has relatively low voter confidence in its short time as a democracy and a history of ballot tampering, but the team did not observe any wrongdoing on its visit.

“From what we observed, things went pretty smoothly,” Dr. Kinsella said. “I think the Guatemalan people appreciated that we were there, cared about their elections, and provided some oversight because of the concerns with previous elections. Having another group there that was making sure everything was done correctly, I think, was appreciated.”

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